The work of creation differs fundamentally from the work of maintenance or renewal or propagation. The difference manifests itself in a different way of occupying time and space. The difference, obscured by the busyness of day-to-day life, fully reveals itself at the brink of the void.
There are things that are – either raw material things; or cultural artifacts like tools, words, ideas, governments, works of art. From the time a thing comes into the world it is launched on a continuous trajectory toward the future. Left alone to follow its trajectory, a thing can persist, grow, spread, deteriorate, mutate. These transformations happen without specific intervention, through the thing’s continuous presence in and interaction with the world.
To work at maintenance is to prevent an already-launched thing from changing over time. To work at renewal is to restore an already-changed thing to its original condition. To work at propagation is to extend the size, range or quantity of an already-existing thing. Work can be done on the thing itself: cleaning, repairing, feeding, replicating. Work can also be done on the environment the thing occupies: removing weeds and diseases, preparing the soil for more plantings, and so on. To perform these kinds of works, the worker must operate within the time and space that the existing thing already occupies. The work is done continually and repeatedly.
Think about a less tangible thing: an idea, say. The same principles apply. You can work at clarifying the idea, protecting it from intellectual attack, restoring its vigor in response to prior onslaughts, teaching it to others, extending its range of application. The same principles hold as with a material thing: the worker lives in the time and space of the idea as something that’s already launched into the intellectual environment.
If your job is to ensure the persistence of an already-existing thing, then the worst -case scenario is for the thing to go out of existence: the artifact is destroyed or rendered obsolete, the idea is forgotten. The thing always exists at the edge of the void; the goal is to keep the void at bay.
Now consider the work of creating either a material thing – an artifact – or a conceptual thing – an idea. To a creator, the void isn’t the end but the beginning; it’s not the fear but the opportunity. The void is the space where the worker sets up shop. To think of the void as chaotic meaninglessness is to see it from the perspective of a world already filled with order and meaning. But if your work is to create order and meaning, then the void is what you seek. The void isn’t existential dread or entropy or nihilism; it’s the realm of pure possibility.
In undertaking a work of creation, the void is the portal out of the already-full world into a world not yet made. Does the void already exist, waiting for the creator to find it and enter it? Or does the creator create a void, an encampment in the midst of an already-full universe, a passageway to a universe that doesn’t yet exist? Perhaps it’s a little of both.
There comes an unaccountable fascination with nothing in particular, then the nothing becomes an empty something – an empty space, a gap, a disruption in the continuum, a portal. Through this obsessive fascination the void opens up around the creator, engulfing the creator in possibility. If you experience disorientation and exhilaration simultaneously, chances are you’re standing on the threshold of the void.
What happens inside the void? Does a truth reveal itself; does an idea become implanted in your mind; do the design and operation of a new device become clear? Perhaps it’s the exact inverse: you become aware of a lack of truth, the absence of an idea, the nonexistence of a device. I’m not sure it’s possible to discern which comes first. I think, though, that the creation of something also reveals the fact that, up until its creation, that thing did not previously exist. The void is the portal, signaling the beginning of an interval during which the absence ends and the presence begins.
The void of creation is a realm of pure possibility. Understanding the void is possible only in retrospect. Once it becomes clear what happened inside the void, it isn’t the void any more: it’s become part of the created universe.